Printer Friendly

Students' perceptions of the learning experience in a large class environment.

ABSTRACT This study investigated the learning experiences of nursing students in a large class environment. The setting was one school of nursing located in a major academic teaching hospital in the Republic of Ireland. The purpose of the study was to identify students' perceptions of the learning experience in large groups and key factors that affect the teaching and learning experience. Data were gathered using a semi-structured questionnaire that incorporated elements of both qualitative and quantitative approaches to inquiry. Respondents were asked their perceptions of the impact of class size on the learning experience. Their perceptions were analyzed to identify key factors thought to contribute to the learning experience in large classes. Respondents agreed that class size affected levels of participation, but they perceived this as only one of a number of influential factors, including teaching and learning strategies, teacher behaviors, and elements of classroom organization and management.

Key Words Class Size--Large Classes--Nursing Education in Ireland Student Interaction--Learning Experience.


NURSING EDUCATION IN THE REPUBLIC OF IRELAND has been transformed in recent years. Following recommendations by the Commission on Nursing, prelicensure nursing education was transferred into the higher education sector in 2002 (1,2). The move included the assimilation of hospital-based schools of nursing into the university setting. * As with a similar situation in the United Kingdom in the mid-1990s, an increase has been seen in the engagement of specialist lecturers--not necessarily health professionals--to teach the pure sciences to nursing students (3). Coupled with a more modular structure within the university, this development has provided opportunities for greater levels of shared learning across disciplines (4). However, the resultant effect has included an increase in class sizes (3,5). With calls for greater efficiency and the effective use of resources within the university sector, and the potential for further increases in class size, there are concerns about the quality of nursing education. * Nursing students need the appropriate knowledge and skills to enable them to deliver safe and competent care to their patients (6). To optimize the teaching and learning experience, it is essential, therefore, to consider how nursing students experience learning in a large class environment.

THIS AUTHOR BECAME INTERESTED in the impact of class size on the learning experience primarily from personal observation. It appeared that, in large class settings, participation levels were lower. In the nursing school in question, at least two thirds of all classes were presented to the group as a whole, and the average group size was between 70 to 80 students. * EXISTING LITERATURE in the area of large-group learning suggests there is a relationship between class size and participation levels. The purpose of the current study was to contribute to what is already known on the subject with a particular focus on nursing students. The impact of the learning experience and its influence on how nurses deliver care to their patients provided additional impetus to pursue the current study. * THE PURPOSE of this study was threefold: to identify students' perceptions of the impact of group size on the learning experience; to identify key factors affecting the learning experience; and to identify strategies to enhance the learning experience for students in large groups, or groups with more than 60 students.

Review of the Literature CLASS SIZE AND ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT Lizzio, Wilson, and Simons investigated whether students' academic environment affects their learning (7). Class size is an integral element of any academic environment and its potential impact on students' perceptions cannot be overlooked. To define large class size, Mateo and Fernandez (8) offered a classification system based on categorization in the international literature. They defined classes with three to nine students as very small; 10 to 29 students as small; 30 to 59 students as medium; 60 to 149 students as large; and more than 150 students as very large.

Findings suggest that with children, a link exists between class size and academic achievement. Slavin conducted a best-evidence synthesis of achievement in elementary education, concluding that a 40 percent reduction in class sizes (from 27 to 16 children) can generally have a positive effect on academic achievement but "the effects tend to be small" (9, p. 251). More recently, Blatchford, Bassett, Brown, Martin, and Russell (10) found no evidence to suggest that children in smaller classes made more progress. However, they highlighted the effect class size could have on the quality and effectiveness of teaching. In large classes, children were found to have a more passive role, and in smaller classes, they were more likely to interact in an active way with the teacher. Whether smaller class size actually promotes learning remains a matter of debate (11).

In 1996, Gibbs, Lucas, and Simonite (12) looked at class size and performance of nursing students and commented on the dearth of published studies. McFarlane (13) examined the university system in the United Kingdom over a period of 20 years and found that while class sizes increased, student performance, in terms of degree classification, actually improved across the system as a whole. Gibbs, Lucas, and Spouse (3), however, looked at the correlation between enrollment numbers and average grade per module attained in a long-established modular nursing degree program. They noted a large and significant negative correlation (r = -0.40, p < 0.001): the larger the enrollment, the lower the average grade. Regression analysis demonstrated a 1 percent drop in the average grade for each additional 25 students.

Last and Fullbrook (14) examined attrition rates in nursing programs. They cited increased enrollment numbers and large lecture groups as key contributory factors to leaving the program. Peers and Johnson (15) looked at the role prior academic achievement at the secondary level played in predicting students' success at the university and found it to be a comparatively poor predictor. McManus, Richards, and Sproston (16) suggested that learning style, and in particular the style adopted in the final year of study, is related to academic achievement or success in final examinations.

More recently, the focus has shifted to exploring how perceptions of the current learning context can be a strong predictor of learning outcomes (17-20). The correlation between perceptions and learning outcomes is stronger, in fact, than that of prior academic achievement and learning outcomes (7). The relationship between approaches to learning and perceived characteristics of the learning environment was established empirically as far back as 1981 by Ramsden and Entwistle (21). Later, Biggs's 3P model went further in suggesting how personal and situational factors, coupled with perceptions of the learning environment, served to influence outcomes (7).

From a qualitative point of view, negative perceptions of the learning experience in a large classroom setting could influence learning outcomes. Prior learning within a particular domain may also act as a powerful predictor of learning expected in a particular field of study (22). Ascertaining students' perceptions of the current learning context has the potential to provide insight into their approach to learning.

LEVELS OF CLASS PARTICIPATION/INTERACTION How students perceive the learning experience will inevitably influence their approach to learning, including their level of participation and interaction in class. Encouraging participation can facilitate the learning process and promote deep learning in students (23). Such participation, however, may not be easily achieved in a large class setting. Levels of interaction and participation have been shown to vary in quantity, quality, and duration, depending on class size (10,12).

It has been suggested that levels of participation and interaction are related to the amount of learning that takes place (24); the more active or engaged students are the better (25-27). The cognitive level of interactions among groups of students declines as group size increases (3,28), inevitably impacting the quality of learning that takes place. Large class sizes may discourage involvement (3), providing opportunities for "social loafing" and a less active role in the educational process (29-31). It is possible that lack of motivation results from the low value individuals attach to their individual contributions, a factor that is, perhaps, accentuated in a large class setting.

STUDENT MOTIVATION AND TEACHING INSTRUCTION Motivation is considered a highly significant psychological concept in education (32), contributing extensively to learning and performance outcomes. Various factors play a role in motivating students toward a particular learning context. Strong, Silver, and Robinson (33) argue that students engaged in their work are motivated, or energized, by four essential goals that must be satisfied: success, curiosity, originality, and relationships. Intrinsic and extrinsic elements can also serve to motivate students (34), and a combination of both may be seen simultaneously. Learning and performance goals can be considered integral to providing meaning and direction to learning activities (35). Such goals may contribute to the sense of personal responsibility for learning that certain students manifest (36,37).

Other factors thought to affect motivation include the physical layout of the classroom as it affects participation in class discussions (38). Teacher behaviors, including speaking voice and movement, also contribute to levels of student participation in large class settings and have a major influence on the learning process (24,30,39). Factors found to inhibit student participation in such settings include low levels of student-instructor interaction, lectures that are not motivating, and difficulty in paying attention (39). The opportunity to interact with peers and faculty was perceived as not readily available in large class formats, and noise and certain seating arrangements were considered inhibitory to the learning experience (39).

It is evident that numerous factors have the potential to affect the learning experience in a large class setting. Therefore, investigating the experience from the student's perspective was seen to be imperative for nursing education in Ireland.

Methodology SAMPLE The target population for the study was nursing students in a three-year diploma in nursing studies program at a large teaching hospital where two thirds of all classes were delivered to the group as a whole. The sample consisted of second-year students (N = 67) who were present in class on the day of the study. Both first- and third-year students were excluded from the study as they were undertaking clinical placements at the time. The sample size used was considered representative of a large class and congruent with the earlier classification.

The response rate was 94 percent; 63 students completed and returned the questionnaire. Three respondents (5 percent) were male. Thirty-four respondents (54 percent) were 20 years old or younger; 21 (33 percent) were 21 to 25 years old. Four respondents were 26 to 30 years old, and four were over 30.

INSTRUMENT A self-administered questionnaire was designed for the study. It included 53 items arranged into four sections based on themes from the literature: impact of class size; factors affecting the learning environment; strategies to enhance the learning experience; and biographical information.

Both qualitative and quantitative approaches were used. Section 1 and part of Section 2 included eight open-ended questions. The remaining questions were formatted according to a Likert-type response scale.

Face validity was determined by distributing the questionnaire to a pilot group of eight third-year students in a similar nursing program that also had large class sizes for lectures. Students in the pilot study were asked to provide feedback on clarity of instructions, layout, length of the questionnaire, the focus of questions, and other topics or areas they thought should be included. Colleagues in the school of nursing were also asked to provide similar feedback. Following this process, the questionnaire was refined to provide greater clarity.

ETHICAL CONCERNS Ethical approval was requested from the Research Access Committee within the teaching hospital. Following submission of a research proposal, access to the study population for the purpose of data collection was granted.

Informed consent was sought from the target population by way of a cover letter accompanying the questionnaire. The letter assured students that confidentiality and anonymity would be maintained at all times and that information obtained would be used for the purpose of the study only. All questionnaires would be destroyed upon completion of the study. Students were also advised of their right to withdraw in advance of completing the questionnaire. Submission of a completed questionnaire was taken as informed consent.

DATA ANALYSIS Data analysis was undertaken using a combination of methods. Quantitative data were analyzed using a Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (Windows, Version 6), with descriptive statistics generated. Content analysis was used to analyze the open-ended questions.

Results Respondents were asked about their most recent educational experience, including class size where applicable. Approximately 15 percent of respondents had been in classes with more than 50 students prior to their current exposure. Four percent had experienced class sizes of more than 100 students.

IMPACT OF CLASS SIZE Large class size was considered in terms of impact on level of interaction in class; perceived impact on academic achievement; and whether students believed class size influenced the way lectures were delivered. Asked if they considered their classes in the school of nursing interactive, 95 percent of respondents said they were. Some provided reasons to support this view, including "there is a lot of group work, therefore everyone gets a chance to voice their opinion." Students saw group work as providing a vehicle for interaction.

In terms of potential impact on academic achievement, 72 percent of respondents considered large classes to have a negative impact. Reasons included, "[I] feel you are holding the class back if you ask a question." For the 18 percent who did not see a negative impact, reasons included, "It's up to the individual."

Asked whether class size had an influence on how lectures were delivered, 79 percent thought it did; 60 percent considered class size to have a negative influence. Their comments included:

"Overhead projector is too far away."

"The lecture is rushed."

"Tutor attention is focused on those nearest them."

"More talk on unrelated topics by students makes it hard to concentrate."

FACTORS AFFECTING THE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT Students considered certain factors to affect the learning environment. Most notable was noise level; 44 respondents (70 percent) had a problem hearing what had been said in class, and 41 percent indicated they had difficulty concentrating in class. Over 53 percent thought that significant amounts of nurse tutor/nurse teacher time were devoted to classroom management, including requesting quiet and distribution of materials. A large proportion (77 percent) felt that students could be overlooked in a large class setting. ("The tutor cannot interact with everyone so some groups tend to be left out.")

While 32 percent felt they were not brave enough to ask questions aloud in class, it is understood that this can happen irrespective of the size of the class if students are reluctant to speak aloud. A large proportion (77 percent) felt there was insufficient time allotted for taking notes in class, and 49 percent felt there was insufficient time to clarify notes when class ended.

STRATEGIES TO ENHANCE THE LEARNING EXPERIENCE Ninety-one percent of respondents felt that their motivation to learn was influenced by the way in which class content was organized by the tutor. This included how the lecture was delivered and the teaching strategies employed. More than 65 percent of respondents thought that classroom layout could be used to focus attention on what needs to be learned; for example, they described the positioning of the overhead projector as influential to the learning environment. A large proportion (73 percent) thought that tutors should move around the class more.

Other strategies to emerge included acknowledging the individual contributions of students. Respondents overall considered that class size had an impact on their level of individual contributions, with 55 percent agreeing that they would contribute more if classes were smaller.

Discussion The inquiry generated some interesting findings on the student learning experience in a large class environment. Responses were mixed, which proved to be illuminating. Some students saw large classes in a positive light, associating the opportunity to undertake group work with learning in large groups. In their view, group work provided opportunities to interact with others and contribute individually. Overall, students considered their classes to be interactive. Hence, the size of the class was not thought to have an adverse effect on levels of interaction.

Students' perceptions of factors affecting the learning experience focused predominantly on classroom layout and organization. While students indicated that they would contribute more if classes were smaller, it is not known if that would truly be the case. In future studies, it would be useful compare the views of students in small-class and large-class environments. Including classroom observation as a data collection tool would also enrich such comparisons.

Teaching strategies and classroom layout were considered by students to have an impact on the learning experience. Aspects such as seating arrangement, location of equipment, and where the lecturer was positioned were all thought to contribute to the learning experience. Environmental constraints, however, can limit the potential to alter classroom layout, especially when the classroom is a tiered lecture theatre.

The style of presentation and content delivery were also thought to have an impact on the learning experience. Students advocated that lecturers alternate their style of delivery in order to maximize levels of classroom interaction. Noise levels were of particular concern for some and appeared to have a significant impact on concentration levels and the student's ability to hear both the lecturer and other students.

Limitations The major limitation of the study was that it only represented the views of one student group in one educational establishment in the Republic of Ireland. Although the study cannot be considered generalizable, it did provide useful insight into practices at a local level. Students' perceptions of the teaching and learning experience in the school provided information regarding aspects of quality provision that are of interest in a local context.

From a methodological perspective, classroom observation might have provided deeper insight into participation levels, as would a comparison between levels of participation in small and large classes. The inclusion of additional sites would also have strengthened the findings, suggesting the need for further exploration of students' experiences using a combination of methods to inform the inquiry.

Although this study highlighted an issue of local concern, it may well resonate with other nursing students or staff in nursing departments with large enrollment numbers. It could also provide insight for those involved in the planning and delivery of nursing education programs and, as such, potentially contribute to enhancing the teaching and learning experience for students.

Conclusion Providing a high quality teaching and learning experience is essential, not only for nursing students, but ultimately for their patients. The current study suggests that certain factors affecting the learning experience are accentuated in a large class setting.

Nursing students must develop effective skills to deliver safe, competent, and evidence-based care to their patients. The educational environment in nursing needs to be one where high quality teaching and learning are fostered and promoted. The need for further investigation of the more subtle processes that affect the overall educational experience for nursing students is clear.


(1.) Government of Ireland. (1998). Report of the Commission on Nursing: A blueprint for the future. Dublin, Ireland: Stationery Office.

(2.) O'Dwyer, P. (2007). Looking back ... moving forward: The educational preparation of nurses in Ireland. Nursing Education Perspectives, 28(3), 136 139.

(3.) Gibbs, G., Lucas, L., & Spouse, S. (1997). The effects of class and form of assessment on nursing students' performance, approaches to study and course perceptions. Nurse Education Today, 17, 311318.

(4.) Camiah, S. (1996). The changing role of British nurse tutors: A study within two demonstration Project 2000 districts. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 23(2), 396-407.

(5.) Carlisle, C., Kirk, S., & Luker, K. (1996). The changes in the role of the nurse teacher following the formation of formal links with higher education. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 24(4), 762-770.

(6.) An Bord Altranais. (2005). Requirements and standards for nurse registration education programmes (3rd ed.) Dublin, Ireland: Author.

(7.) Lizzio, A., Wilson, K., & Simons, R. (2002). University students' perceptions of the learning environment and academic outcomes: Implications for theory and practice. Studies in Higher Education, 27 (1), 27-52.

(8.) Mateo, M.A., & Fernandez, J. (1996). Incidence of class size on the evaluation of university teaching quality. Education and Psychological Measurement, 56(5), 771-778.

(9.) Slavin, R. E. (1986). Ability grouping and student achievement in elementary schools: A best-evidence synthesis. (Rep. No. 1). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools.

(10.) Blatchford, P., Bassett, P., Brown, P., Martin, C., & Russell, A. (2004). The effects of class size on attainment and classroom processes in English primary schools (Years 4 to 6) (2000-2003). (Research Brief No: RBX 13-04). London: Department for Education and Skills.

(11.) Hargreaves, L., Galton, M., & Pell, A. (1998). The effects of changes in class size on teacher-pupil interaction. International Journal of Educational Research, 29(8), 779-795.

(12.) Gibbs, G., Lucas, L., & Simonite, V. (1996). Class size and student performance: 1984-94. Studies in Higher Education, 21(3), 261-273.

(13.) MacFarlane, B. (1992). The results of recession: Students and university degree performance during the 1980s. Research in Education, 49, 1-10.

(14.) Last, L., & Fulbrook, P. (2003). Why do student nurses leave? Suggestions from a Delphi study. Nurse Education Today, 23, 449-458.

(15.) Peers, I. S., & Johnston, M. (1994). Influence of learning context on the relationship between A-level attainment and final degree performance: A meta-analytical review. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 64, 1-17.

(16.) McManus, I. C., Richards, P. B. C., & Sproston, K.A. (1998). Clinical experience, performance in final examinations, and learning style in medical students: Prospective study. British Medical Journal, 316, 345-350.

(17.) Marton, F., Hounsell, D., & Entwistle, N.J. (Eds.). (1997). The experience of learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education (2nd ed.). Edinburgh, Scotland: Scottish Press.

(18.) Prosser, M., & Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: The experience in higher education. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

(19.) Prosser, M., Ramsden, P., Trigwell, K., & Martin, E. (2003). Dissonance in experience of teaching and its relation to the quality of student learning. Studies in Higher Education, 28(1), 38-48.

(20.) Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to teach in higher education. London: Routledge.

(21.) Ramsden, P., & Entwistle, N.J. (1981). Effects of academic departments on students' approaches to studying. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 51, 368-383.

(22.) Cantwell, R. H. (1997). Cognitive dispositions and student nurses' appraisals of their learning environment. Issues in Educational Research, 7(1), 19-36.

(23.) Beeks, W. (2006). The "Millionaire" method for encouraging participation. Active Learning in Higher Education, 7(1), 25-36.

(24.) Boman, J. (1986). Facilitating student involvement in large classroom settings. Journal of Nursing Education, 25(6), 226-229.

(25.) Goldsmid, C.A., & Wilson, E. K. (1980). Passing on sociology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

(26.) Horton-Smith, D. (1992). Encouraging students' participation in large classes: A modest proposal. Teaching Sociology, 20, 337-339.

(27.) Vanetzian, E., & Corrigan, B. (1996). "Prep" for class and class activity. Nurse Educator, 21(2), 4548.

(28.) Mahler, S., Neumann, L., & Tamir, P. (1986). The class size effect upon activity and cognitive dimensions of lessons in higher education. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 11, 43-49.

(29.) Karau, S. J., & Williams, K. D. (1993). Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 681-706.

(30.) Miner, R. (1992). Reflections on teaching a large class. Journal of Management Education, 16(3), 290-302.

(31.) North, A. C., Linley, P.A., & Hargreaves, D.J. (2000). Social loafing in co-operative classroom task. Educational Psychology, 20(4), 389-392.

(32.) Vallerand, R., Pelletier, L., Blais, M., Briere, N., Senecal, C., & Vallieres, E. (1992). The academic motivation scale: A measure of intrinsic, extrinsic and amotivation in education. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 52, 1003-1017.

(33.) Strong, R., Silver, H. F., & Robinson, A. (1995). What do students want (and what really motivates them)? Educational Leadership, 53(1), 8-14.

(34.) McKeachie, W. J. (1999). McKeatchie's teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (10th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

(35.) Chalmers, D. (1994). Local and overseas students' goals and management of study. Issues in Educational Research, 4(2), 25-56.

(36.) Askell-Williams, H., & Lawson, M.J. (2001). Mapping students' perceptions of interesting class lessons. Social Psychology of Education, 5, 127-147.

(37.) Devlin, M. (2002).An improved questionnaire for gathering student perceptions of teaching and learning. Higher Education Research and Development, 21(3), 289-304.

(38.) Douglas, D., & Gifford, R. (2001). Evaluation of the physical classroom by students and professors: A lens model approach. Educational Research, 43(3), 295-309.

(39.) Doran, M., & Golen, S. (1998). Identifying communication barriers to learning in large group accounting instruction. Journal of Education for Business, 73(4), 221-224.

Therese Leufer, BSc (Hons), PG Dip HEd, MA HEd, RGN, RNT, ILTM, is a lecturer at the School of Nursing, Dublin City University, Dublin, Ireland, and a candidate for the EdD degree at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. For more information, contact Ms. Leufer at
COPYRIGHT 2007 National League for Nursing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Leufer, Therese
Publication:Nursing Education Perspectives
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Nov 1, 2007
Previous Article:Clinical transition of baccalaureate nursing students during preceptored, pregraduation practicums.
Next Article:Undergraduate grade point average and graduate record examination scores: the experience of one graduate nursing program.

Related Articles
School environments alienate some students.
Can challenging classes also be enjoyed?
All or nothing: levels of sociability of a pedagogical software agent and its impact on student perceptions and learning.
Student perceptions of learning environments.
The relationship between student nurse and nurse clinician: impact on student learning.
Thoughts on incivility: student and faculty perceptions of uncivil behavior in nursing education.
What does an innovative teaching assignment strategy: mean to nursing students?
English language learners' perceptions of school environment.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters